After two eruptions in the span of a month, the public is suddenly paying attention to volcanoes. But volcanologists have been watching them for years, and now, a small group is taking volcano monitoring to new heights with the help of drones.
The team’s efforts couldn’t be more timely. In Guatemala, the death toll has risen to 69 in the wake of a violent eruption of Volcán de Fuego, which sent billowing black clouds of searing-hot gases and rocks into the air and flowing over the land. And over in Hawaii, a magnitude 5.5 earthquake recently rocked the ongoing Kilauea eruption, reminding residents that the disaster is far from over.
Knowing in advance what kinds of eruptions will occur and what danger they pose requires diligent work. The Earth currently has approximately 1,500 active volcanoes, dozens of which are actively erupting at any given moment. Drones, also known as unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), can help volcanologists keep closer tabs on the dangerous geologic features.
For United States Geological Survey volcanologist Angie Diefenbach, Kilauea marks the agency’s first “eruption response using UAS.”
At Kilauea, Diefenbach and her colleagues use drones to track lava flow paths, produce elevation models of the changing landscapes, take thermal images, and track the gases released at active sites.
A NOVA producer reports from multiple Kilauea fissures.
Diefenbach and her colleagues aren’t alone. Scientists around the world are using drones to improve our understanding of volcanoes. Maarten de Moor, a volcanologist at the Observatorio Vulcanológico y Sismológico de Costa Rica studies volcanic gases. Traditionally, volcanologists like de Moor install monitoring instruments at active sites to study how the gases change over time. But this comes with a catch: though they’re great for long-term monitoring, those instruments aren’t quite permanent if the volcano actually erupts.
“When the volcano erupts, it destroys the instrument,” de Moor said, “and then you can’t go into the crater because it’s too dangerous to put in a new instrument. You don’t know what’s going on because you don’t have any data, and that’s where the drones come in.”
Flying a drone into a volcano is no easy feat—it takes entire teams of researchers to perform successful flights. Researchers have to consider many technical details such as whether drones can be equipped with lightweight scientific instruments that can measure gases from the sky and successfully fly with the added weight. They also have to consider power: drone batteries tend to lose charge quickly, so scientists have to plan and time their flights carefully.
“During the flights, things are happening so quickly, with the drone disappearing into clouds of volcanic gas, gusts of wind pushing it around, and weather conditions changing extremely quickly,” de Moor said. “Every minute seems like an eternity because you are always wondering if the drone will make it back.”
Monitoring volcanoes by drones won’t replace traditional monitoring methods, but will supplement them, giving researchers potentially life-saving data during potentially life-threatening situations.
John Stix, a volcanologist and professor at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, was part of one of the first groups that measured gases emitted by active volcanoes with drones. In 2016, Stix and his colleagues took two drones to Central America to measure gases at actively erupting volcanoes. There, they soon came across the grim reality of flying drones in dangerous conditions.
“We crashed a drone,” Stix said. “It’s just part of the business.”
Stix and his colleagues used what they learned from their crash to prepare for the next flight, which involved learning how to better operate the drone in the plume and enhancing the instrumentation they used for gas measurements on the drone. In April 2017, Stix and his colleagues successfully flew a drone at Turrialba, an active volcano in Costa Rica, and the data they gathered adds to the growing research around the volcano.
“Right now, in 2018, the volcano is probably as active as it has ever been,” Stix says. “The big question is what’s going to happen next.”
But predicting the activity of volcanoes is very difficult, said Janine Krippner, a volcanologist and postdoctoral researcher at Concord University in Athens, West Virginia.
“Every volcano has its own kind of personality, and they have different moods,” Krippner said. “A volcano won’t necessarily produce the same kind of eruption over and over…An active volcano is an evolving system, it’s constantly changing.”
For example, if a volcano starts to emit more gas over shorter periods of time, “the situation is escalating and it’s probably going to lead to an eruption—and the big question is how big that eruption is going to be,” de Moor said. That sort of information, collected by long-term monitoring and drones, could inform warnings and evacuations in the communities around volcanoes, potentially saving lives.
But how quickly that information makes it to those on the ground varies depending on local governments.
Amy Donovan, a lecturer at the University of Cambridge, studies how volcano research translates to policy. “You can go and fly a drone around a volcano, but if you’re not passing that information on to somebody who can do something about it, then it’s not going to have any impact at all,” she said.
To ensure data is shared and used, researchers who fly drones might work with local volcano observatories, which, Donovan says, “know better than anybody else what’s going on” with their volcanoes. But, she adds, drones might have an unexpected added benefit: engaging the communities that live around volcanoes.
“Showing people the volcano through the eyes of a drone can give them a new kind of insight into their home territory,” Donovan said, “And also just a sense that the volcano is maybe a bit more alive than they thought it was.”
Still, those benefits are limited to a small number right now: “There are plenty of volcanoes globally that are still not really monitored very well,” Donovan says.
Loÿc Vanderkluysen, an assistant professor at Drexel University, uses drones in his volcano research and imagines a future in which drones could help fill in missing data about volcanoes around the world—without the need for human operators.
“[It] sounds like science fiction, but the development of drones as unmanned and autonomous vehicles means that we could potentially program drones to learn [about the] behavior of a volcano and be able to feed the detection,” Vanderkluysen says. “Then the drone would be able to launch by itself, go make the measurements by itself, land back to the base by itself, and upload the data itself without human interaction.”
Though drones have been used in volcanology research in only the past few years, volcanologists are only just getting started.
“I think [drones] are going become unavoidable because of the aspect that they can go in hazardous places where volcanologists shouldn’t go and collect data in places where we never have before,” Vanderkluysen says. “I think we’re going to be accessing data about volcanoes that we never dreamed of.”